Failure Culture: “It Was a Painful Learning Process”

by Natascha Zeljko

Mirko Kaminski (47), founder, owner, and CEO of achtung!, talks about failure culture. The communications agency employs 170 people and is one of the most award-winning agencies in Germany

The absolute biggest mistake, the biggest weakness, is to not think about your weaknesses. Of course, everyone has a subject that inspires and ignites them. Generally, this is not only a great passion, but also the greatest personal strength. But besides that, everyone has weaknesses. My passion and strength is communication and communication ideas. This is still the focus today. At the same time, I am not the right person for other areas of the company, such as finance, structures, or processes. Nor for sustainability or human resources. I just love to develop ideas and inspire others with them. That is my strength. But I also have many weaknesses. Actually, I have far more weaknesses than strengths. But it took me a while to see it so clearly, and it was a painful learning process.

After founding a company, you get to know yourself

In the euphoria of the beginning, when you have founded a company and the success comes, you have to be careful not to lose touch with reality and believe that you can do everything. Because with a growing company your own weaknesses become more and more obvious. Above all, they become more and more important if they are not recognized. But you should view them with an overview of the success of the company, analyze them, and then come to the right conclusions. I concluded that I should hire good people very quickly and invest in them to compensate for my weaknesses. In other words, you should invest as early as possible in professionals who bring the know-how that you lack. When I had about 20 employees, I analyzed why the majority of the more than 20,000 agencies in Germany do not exceed this company size. Sure, some of them don’t want to grow greatly. But for many, the reason for stagnation is that there is someone at the top who believes they know everything, can do everything, have to control everything. A hindrance! And that inhibits growth. I didn’t want to be such a hindrance. Never!

Working on strengths

One of my big weaknesses is projecting too much onto others. In the early days after founding, I often hired the wrong people. I was proud that people from big network agencies applied to me. Me! A small, still unknown agency at that time! I was so proud and sometimes so dazzled that I occasionally offered an employment contract after only a few minutes. Then it very often didn’t go well. My lack of interest in finances was also difficult. There was a situation in which I thought that it was getting really tight in terms of liquidity. But I simply didn’t have it on my radar that there was still a considerable sum parked in our fixed-term deposit account. Since then it’s been clear: the area of finance is not one of my strengths and passions. At some point it was also clear that we had to define new processes. But I had never done that before in my life. And it didn’t excite me either.

In this way and for these reasons I made many mistakes. At the same time I noticed where my weaknesses were due to these mistakes and simultaneously became aware of my strengths. So I gradually found the best role and function for myself within my company. What I can do is form ideas, consulting, and sales. I am the foreign minister. I am the anchorman of the agency. My job is also being on the road, observing trends, networking, and giving the agency as much energy as possible from outside. I prefer not to touch other areas and tasks within the agency. I trust others there. I prefer and continue to work on getting better in my fields of strength. In my opinion it would be absolutely inefficient and perhaps also futile to work on one’s weaknesses. Incidentally, we have generally refrained from doing so in the agency. We do not want to doctor any weaknesses of our staff. We want to strengthen their strengths.

Failure culture

Strengthening strengths and at the same time using mistakes to learn about yourself, while sharing them with others, is also one of our guiding principles. That is why error culture is an important topic for us. Several times a year we have an evening event called “Best and Worst”. With “Worst” we discuss projects that did not go so well. And we share this knowledge about the causes and mistakes with other departments over a beer, pizza, and chips. Mistakes are important in order to learn from them and not make them too often. Dealing with mistakes is therefore a damn good investment. In this way you can avoid losing money unnecessarily or even burning it, because mistakes usually cost money. Sometimes even a lot of money.

The new sovereignty

Are there any differences between women and men in terms of mistakes, weaknesses, and how they deal with them? I believe that men in the past had greater difficulty in dealing with mistakes. Especially when they have been socialized with the credo that it is part of leadership not to expose their weaknesses and not to lose face. One sometimes finds this with older people. But generally it can be said that things have been harmonized between men and women. Today it’s more important to be authentic and open than to fake your strengths. This also includes being able to deal with mistakes confidently. When you talk about your own mistakes and about what you have learned from them, employees today are more likely to follow you than if you always play the flawless can-do-anything. Such types today come across as behind the times.

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